GPS survey, Petra, Jordan

My Day Job: The Zamani Project | Virtual Heritage Sites

GPS survey, Petra, Jordan

GPS survey, Petra, Jordan


The Zamani Project is a team doing some amazing work recording and digitalizing heritage sites and structures for future generations when the actual sites may not be around due to slow destruction through environmental and human impact.


On behalf of 10and5, Jade Ashton Scully chatted to one of the team members, Stephen Wessels, to find out everything she could about the Zamani Project.


Here’s their Q&A.



Jade: In a nutshell, what does the Zamani Project do and why should we take note?


Stephen: Many of Africa’s heritage sites, in the form of tombs, fortifications, mosques, burial grounds, castles, churches, rock art caves etc are in danger of destruction due to environmental and man-made damage. If these buildings disappear altogether then there will be no physical remains of long forgotten civilizations. Often all that remains of a by-gone civilisation in Africa are its ruins.


The Zamani Project aims to capture these sites physical dimensions and appearance by creating maps, 3D computer models, 360 degree panorama tours, and photo and video visualisations. This data can be used to virtually showcase these sites and to create a digital record for future generations to enjoy.


3D model of RoyalTombs in Petra, Jordan

3D model of RoyalTombs in Petra, Jordan


Jade: What is your role in the Z Group?


Stephen: I studied Geomatics, a BSc degree at UCT which involves Land surveying, cartography, GPS data manipulation and photogrammetry. These skills are all put to use in the Zamani Project as we capture information about the spatial dimensions of heritage sites. I am luckily, and gratefully, involved in the field missions to capture the data of each site, and in the processing of the data.


It is a gratifying feeling watching a heritage site that you’ve spent a week or two documenting come to life in a virtual environment, knowing that this site, if ever destroyed, will have this digital record forever.


3D laser Scanning at San Sebastian Fortress, Mozambique

3D laser Scanning at San Sebastian Fortress, Mozambique


Jade: Explain the process the Z Group goes through on a given project.


Stephen: Once a site is chosen to be documented the fun times begin (it is also fun to decide which site needs documentation too). We are a DIY team in the office so we do all the logistics ourselves. Permission to document the site must first be granted by local authorities, who sometimes pass the buck around several departments. Then flights must be booked, visas, injections and accommodation sorted. Transport arranged, which is usually by 4×4, and cooking organised (if we are going somewhere remote). We also have to organise insurance, hiring of equipment, checking and testing software, packing of all equipment, charging batteries. The list goes on…


If a single cable is left behind this could spell disaster for the trip.This is all before we leave. It helps that there are a few Germans in the team 🙂 Once we arrive on site there are many challenges to deal with. Generators that don’t work, vegetation covering the site (in Tanzania it took a team of 30 people 2 weeks to clear the jungle around the ruins), and having a working toilet and shower is often a luxury. Then we spend up to 2 weeks laser scanning, photographing, GPS surveying and exploring every nook and cranny of the site gathering data.


Once we get back to the office we get to process all this data and piece it together, which sometimes comes with sweat and blood stains. Ultimately we end up with a holistically documented heritage site that resides on our database.


GPS survey at Musawwarat es-Sufra, Sudan

GPS survey at Musawwarat es-Sufra, Sudan


Jade: When was the group / initiative started?


Stephen: The Zamani project was started around 2004 by Prof Heinz Ruther. He was given a grant by the Mellon foundation to employ staff and buy equipment. But long before this Prof Ruther was on his own doing conventional surveys of archeological sites wherever people needed his help. Along with Prof Ruther the team consists of Ralph Schroeder, Roshan Bhurtha and myself.


Jade: How is each heritage site chosen?


Stephen: We have a team of advisers, each with their own specialty, that suggest which sites are important. We try to get a wide spread of sites across Africa, but this is difficult due to logistical problems. Finally we will decide if it is possible to document the site using our techniques.


Jade: Having traveled to some interesting places in Africa you must’ve seen some strange/wonderful things. What’s been your most memorable?


Stephen: Egypt was really incredible. It was my first trip, and I was kind of thrown in the deep end. We documented the Valley of the Queens and it was amazing being out on the mountains with the sun rising and hot air balloons quietly moving overhead in the sunrise. When the sun came up it felt like your skin was being bitten by a pack of hungry hyenas. We created a 3D model of the Valley so that in the case of a flood it could be calculated where the water would flow and the tombs could be protected.


Lalibela in Ethiopia was amazing too. There are a dozen churches there that are each a solid piece of rock that has been carved out of the mountain side. And they are still in use by orthodox Christians. I really enjoy coastal sites though, being able to have a swim after a hard days work is tops. The Island of Songo Mnara, and the Fortress of Saint Sebastian in Mozambique are two amazing locations for a cool down dip 🙂 On the last trip Ralph managed to sit on a sea urchin, and I was attacked by a swarm of bees, so it’s not without its hazards.


Chapel on San Sebastian Fortress, Mozambique.

The chapel on San Sebastian Fortress, Mozambique.


Jade: What/where is next and when?


Stephen: Trips have been put on hold for a while as we have been battling to find funding for the project. However we are involved in a UNESCO project in Petra, Jordan, and we are leaving on the 3rd December for a week long mission there. Then we have a project in Algeria early next year. There is no shortage of heritage sites and in South Africa there are thousands of rock art caves to document so we usually do a few local trips in between the bigger ones.


Jade: How did you get involved in the Zamani Project?


Stephen: After I finished my degree I asked Prof Heinz if he had any work for me, since I really liked the project. He said I could start the next day. I pointed out that it was Saturday the next day…that was my interview.


Jade: What interesting facts can you tell us about some of the sites you’ve visited?


Stephen: Great Zimbabwe is a huge fortified city that once had a population of between 10 and 20 thousand people. Chinese porcelain has been found amongst the ruins. This civilisation completely dissapeared and to this day nobody knows exactly who they were and where they went. In Mali the Mosques of Timbukto and Djenne are the biggest buildings in the world made entirely out of mud and wood.


Many of the sites are piles of stone put there by a labour force of tens of thousands, all arranged to serve some spiritual purpose, but all that’s left is the evidence of the might of an organised human settlement. It is eerie walking though massive carved pillars and pyramids, that today are in the remote deserts of the Sudan and wondering what would have gone on back then. The evidence of the beginning of humankind’s creative and spiritual awakening are painted on rock art caves and shelters throughout Africa; the mystery of how they originated is still out there.


Enjoying the view in Petra, Jordan

Enjoying the view in Petra, Jordan


Jade: How long, on average, does each trip last?


Stephen: 1 to 2 weeks. But they feel like months. People sometimes think that it’s a holiday out there, and it definitely is fun, but in the words of Roshan Bhurtha (team member), “It’s hard sometimes!”.


Thanks for your time, Stephen and Jade!



If you or someone you know has an interesting job in a design, technology or creative field, then let us know!


Find our Q&A’s on other unusual day jobs here.


3D model of San Sebastian Fortress, Mozambique

3D model of San Sebastian Fortress, Mozambique


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